Snow capped mountain peaks make beautiful scenery and picturesque postcards. But how many of us do we really think about what it is like setting foot in such places? Lovely no doubt, but it is not a place for just anybody and sometimes not even for experienced mountaineers, if conditions do not favour him. I learnt it the hard way, when my body failed to acclimatize to the high altitude conditions. The ‘High Altitude Sickness’ hit me like a jack hammer from nowhere. Three days of the sickness sucked the life out of me like I have never experienced before in my life.
The ‘High Altitude sickness’, also known as ‘The Acute Mountain Sickness’, is a pathological condition caused by the failure of the human body to acclimatize to the high altitude conditions such as the low atmospheric pressure, low oxygen level etc. “It is hard to say who will be affected by altitude sickness, as there are no specific factors that correlate with a susceptibility to altitude sickness….It can progress to High Altitude Pulmonary Edema (HAPE) or High Altitude Cerebral Edema (HACE), which are potentially fatal”. (Wikipedia). Anybody, even those with the fittest or strongest physical constitution, can be affected by it if the body is not acclimatised properly to the high altitude conditions. Those living in the plains and used to the low altitude conditions are the ones more likely to suffer from it as their bodies are not attuned to the conditions. That is why it is very important that in mountaineering one must give ample time to the body to acclimatize to the conditions slowly. One can’t just walk up to a mountain peak like that :).
Anyways the ‘HAS’ or ‘HAPE’ was the last thing on my mind when I joined the expedition. I never even thought it’d happen to me. But here I was, my head feeling like it has been weighed down by kilos and chopped up into thousand pieces, even a slight movement would send the world spinning in dizzying circles. Then there is a constant feeling as if an invisible hand is squeezing your brains inside the skull. Whatever you put down the throat comes up again as soon as it hits the stomach, even water. So you are not just starved of oxygen but of food and nutrients as well which is very essential. In a short time, the strength is knocked off you knees and you lay there like a crumpled mass of heap, unable to even help yourself to the loo. The only option for such a sickness is to bring down the person to a lower altitude level and wait for the body to acclimatize properly. So it was to be that we were brought down to Thangu, a small hamlet in North Sikkim which was the last human settlement below the Chopta Valley. After lying motionless for two days on the cold floors of an old shack along with two other climbers in the expedition team, our bodies slowly returned to normal. The head was now fine although the knees would buckle under when we tried to walk. We were starved. So we had meat arranged from the village and fed ourselves enough to bring back the strength. But one day’s meal wasn’t going to replenish the strength lost after starving for more than three days. My knees still felt wobbly and it would take a few more days to get back my strength. But the luxury of time was not ours anymore; we had very little time to catch up with the rest of the group. One team had already advanced from the BC (Base Camp) for the higher altitudes and we had to hurry to make it to the second team that would try for the summit. So we hit the road for BC and having rested a night there, we heaved our backpacks once again and moved on the following day to ABC (Advance Base Camp) and from there to Camp 1 the subsequent day. It was again a continuous climb with no more than one night’s rest in one camp. This time round my body held but was still weak from the last bout. At Camp I, which was located on the rocky banks of a small lake atop the mountains, I felt exhilarated on reaching there. The water was clear and blue as the sky, you could even see the pebbles in the bottom of the lake. I stood awhile by the banks watching the calm blue lake and feeling incredibly lucky to be one of the few humans to have actually set foot in this area. I felt blessed.
- A lake on top of the mountains, just before Camp 1.
When we reached Camp I, one team had already departed for Camp II (established on the Col seen on the left side of the picture above). Soon enough we broke into jubilation when news reached us that the first team has conquered the virgin peak. It was a beautiful day and the weather had held. The blessings of Khangchengyao were with us. Encouraged by the success, the second team was readying itself to go for the summit climb. But there were only four members out of the six men team that was planned. Rest of the members of the expedition thought it wise to return from ABC to Base camp after one member (a mountaineering training instructor himself) had a bad slip from the 80 degree ice wall of the mountain face and had a tearful story to tell about his lucky survival. The three of us faced the difficult question of whether we were fit enough to attempt the formidable ice wall. One decided he wasn’t and turned back from Camp I which left the two of us staring up the mountain with a lot of uncertainty.
Mt.Khangchenyao which stands 6889 meters (22602 ft) is said to be the 4th highest peak in Sikkim and the 10th highest in India. In this part of the Himalayan region, the natives identify most of the mountains, especially the high peaks, as deities and even gives them a gender, male or female, according to local beliefs. The mountains are held with high regard which we from the valley areas tend to take for granted. They are worshipped and due obeisance is accorded to them before any attempt is made to set foot on them. Mt.Khangchengyao is one such mountain which is deeply respected and feared by the locals. They identify it as a male mountain and local legends has it that it gets angry when a women sets foot near it. Coincidence is that on two occasions, when members of the fairer sex present in the expedition have gone as little as near the base of the mountain, the weather conditions at the top began to worsen. Mere coincidence of course but we were not taking any chances annoying the mighty Khangchenyao.
Mt.Khangchengyao had a unique shape. Of course all mountains are shaped uniquely but this one had a particularly striking difference. It is a dome-shaped mountain and really didn’t have a pointed peak as most mountains do. Instead it has a more or less rounded top which tapers down it sides in a steep 75 to 80 degree wall which was the most challenging part of the climb. A slip from there would only take you straight up…….to heaven of course, or hell depending on who has slipped.
Discarding all thoughts and imaginations that was hammering my brain, I slipped my feet into my Coflex snow boots which itself would weigh more than two Kilos a pair. Coupled with the gear and other stuff in your backpack, one would be hauling up that formidable ice wall an easy extra 25-30 Kilos besides the weight of one’s body . I hauled the backpack onto my back feeling a little weak in the knees and gingerly stepped out on the snow. It was early morning dawn and we had to climb before the sun melts the ice on the mountain face. It would be a slippery hell when that happens. The snow under my feet was soft but wasn’t deep. It was an easy walk towards the base of the mountain, relatively speaking that is because walking in the snow is never easy of course.
As I stood at the base of the mountain and looked up at the smugly sitting titanic boulder of rock covered in a blanket of ice and snow, trepidation gripped me. Will I be able to hold on to that almost vertical wall. Will I be able to make it to the top? I could almost feel the rush of adrenalin. I clipped my Jhummer on to the rope, closed my eyes tight one last time, prayed briefly to God to keep me safe, and screaming out loud inside my brain “Nongmada pokpa machana nini shiba hounade” I lifted my ice-axe with my right hand and struck out high above. It rebounded off the ice like chipping rock. One bloody hell of an ice wall, I thought to myself. Taking a deep breath I struck a second time, the ice axe held this time. Tugging a little and after making sure it holds, I struck my left foot with the front tip of the crampons on my boots into the ice wall as high as I can lift it. When it held, I took a light leap off my right foot, pushing myself up a foot or two and struck the crampons on my right foot into the wall firmly, a step higher than the left. After making sure that the two feet held firmly, I eased the Jhummer up the rope and when it held firmly on the rope, I released my ice axe and aimed a little higher. I remembered my mountaineering lessons well. It is what we call ‘Three point climbing”, you make sure that you are always anchored on three points leaving only one free to reach further. Step by step, slowly and slowly I inched forward.
Although my failing strength was my weak point, a good climbing technique was what helped me on that wall. Many a times my fellow climber in the front slipped sending me a cascade of snow and ice. He would dangle on the rope, swinging side to side trying to get a foothold back onto the wall and in the effort use up all the energy. The most difficult part of the climb was when we had to traverse diagonally to go round an overhang on the wall. It was a frightening experience to watch my fellow climber make it across that difficult patch. When my turn came I took a deep breath and struck my ice axe diagonally side ways. I could not afford a slip. I needed to use my energy conservatively, depleted as it is already. Slowly, tentatively and steadily, I advanced making sure I do not falter on the ‘three points’ principle. We made it safely across the overhang and started easing straight up the wall, much more comfortably now than deflecting sideways.
The sun was high up in the sky now. We have been climbing for quite sometime now. My feet were hurting badly on account of the awkward pressure on the toes and ankle. I had long run out of my last reserves of energy and was hanging on to the cliff on sheer will. The knuckles of my right hand were red and sore from hitting the ice chips coming off the wall when I strike it with the ice axe. Sometimes my knuckles would hit the wall but it didn’t pain so much as it was almost numb. Of all the stupid things to happen, I had lost my glove while trying to take a picture I could not resist. The person climbing in front of me was taking a breather and he had come directly between me and the sun, blocking the sun from my view. He was hanging there precariously, silhouetted against the bright sunlight. I could not resist the artistic urge in me, if you can call it that. Many would term it sheer stupidity I am sure. Anchoring myself safely, I reached for the camera in my waist pouch which I had forgotten for quite a while. When I brought up my camera to take the shot, the sun had moved by then. I cautiously stepped sideways to re-establish the position again when the glove, which I had tucked under my armpits after taking it off my right hand to take the shot with the camera, slipped and fell. Helplessly I watched it shrink rapidly as it descended in the empty space below and soon disappeared out of sight. I heard the person way below me yell out the choicest cuss words that was there in his lexicon. I quietly cussed myself as well. It was the last straw. But the picture I had to take and take I did (seen above).
Having no other alternative, I took off my scarf and wound it around the fist clenching the ice axe so that it was protected to the best possible. Then I resumed my climb. Coming back to the precarious position I was in, I started questioning the rationale of my hanging there on the cliff on a slender thread while I could have been sitting comfortably in my bedroom watching TV, eating popcorn or munching on some ‘chikki’ or whatever there was to eat, doing the most mundane things but safe. Strange choices we make! Concentrate! Something in the back of my mind screamed. It wasn’t the time to drift away and drifting away I was. I shook myself to get out of the trance like state I was in. The sun was beating down making me sweat in the freezing cold. I looked up and saw the brow of the mountain some distance away. I had no idea how far Camp II was from there. So I set my target to get to that position first and think about the rest later. This was something I have been doing for sometime now, setting one target and then the next, taking one at a time. That saves me the desperation in thinking about the whole distance we had to cover in one go. One step at a time often takes you to your destination sooner than you except. So having set my marker, I adjusted my backpack and concentrated on the task at hand. I did not have the strength or the energy in me anymore. But something in me screamed that I must go on. I must not give up. I had come here to climb and climb I must, there was no other way. I kept going. The will in me pushing me on and on. I couldn’t remember when I reached the brow but as I stepped up, I saw an outstretched hand reaching out towards me and I grabbed it pulling myself up. A huge sense of relief and jubilation washed over me as I stood there catching my breath and looking straight at the welcoming sight of the three small tents nestled precariously on the slope. I had reached Camp II! I had actually made it across the petrifying ice wall, the most difficult part of the climb !
The first thing I did on reaching Camp II was rush to the Kitchen tent and quickly heat up some water. Quickly was like an hour in just thawing the snow. It takes about two hours to boil an egg in that freezing cold ! I dipped the frozen fingers of my right hand into the hot water and kept it there for as long as the water stayed hot. Slowly my fingers tips, which had gone totally numb and had started to turn bluish due to frost bite, started to regain some sensation. It felt heavenly. Meantime I also rustled up some hot soup and put chunks of canned meat into it. All of us went at the soup like as if we have been starving for a whole month. Sadly it was all to come out again the next day as our bodies could not digest it, perhaps because of the cold.
At dawn the next day, we got ourselves ready to go for the final assault. There were only five of us now. The one who was climbing ahead of me in the previous day’s climb (one among the three of us sent down to Thangu) opted out of the summit climb. He was completely wasted. One by one we set off. We were making good progress when up ahead I saw one of my fellow climbers kneeling on the ground. Steadily I headed towards the person who was down on his fours belching out whatever he has had the day before. I tried to assist him and in doing so I felt sick myself. I controlled the urge to throw up. Collecting ourselves up after a while, we started to push ahead again. The other three ahead of us had covered quite a distance by then separating us into two groups, the three of them ahead and two of us trailing behind (seen on photograph below). The climb was now technically much easier than the previous day as it was now a gradual climb, except for the exertion due to the altitude which made breathing more difficult. I was climbing along steadily when I could no longer contain the urge and I doubled up on all fours emptying my stomach. After the ordeal was over, I felt a little lighter. When I stood up, my head was swimming a little and thought my eyes were clouding up when I could not see my fellow climber properly. But it wasn’t my sight, it was the fog. The sky was clear a while ago but some fog had started to build up out of nowhere. At this altitude the weather becomes very unpredictable. It could take a drastic turn in seconds.I scanned for the three other climbers ahead of us but they were slowly disappearing in the worsening fog. They won’t be very far from the summit by now I thought. As I stood there a while feeling a little indecisive to push ahead in the worsening fog, a strong wind started to blow. Thick clouds were blowing towards us. A storm was brewing ! I did not know when I made the decision but I was already rushing downwards. I had to hit the Camp before it got any worse. In a little while I heard the crackling of the radio. The three guys ahead of us were also behinds me though I still could not make them out in the fog. By that time visibility had gone down to almost 7 to 8 feet at the most. We yelled and screamed at each other and finally managed to make it back to Camp II safely.
- Barely had we got our breath back that the radio started to crackle again. Control Centre warned us of a serious storm brewing up in the horizon, something that was not going to ease up very soon. The weather forecasts received at the Base Camp predicted deteriorating weather conditions. The snow season was also approaching and once it starts it would be difficult for us to get out of the valley itself. Snow would choke all our routes. The radio crackled again and the voice spat out in quick terse words. Control centre ordered an immediate evacuation. Get out of there! We dint think twice. I dove inside our two-men tent, shook my sick partner out of his slumber and started packing as fast as we can, taking whatever we could carry with us. One of the members hurriedly tied up the rolled up tent onto my backpack which was already bursting from its sides. I quickly looped the fixed rope onto the carabiner on my harness and rappled down as fast as I could go in that storm. Moving cautiously but as fast as I could, I made progress surprisingly quite fast, perhaps fear had something to do with it. I must have made it almost three fourth of the distance on the ice wall when the wind suddenly changed direction. The fog had eased up quite a lot at this level but the wind had gotten much stronger, now blowing from the bottom of the mountain upwards. It packed quite a wallop blowing us almost off the mountain face. I quickly clipped the Jhummer to the fixed rope. The Jhummer is a wonderful piece of equipment, something my appreciation of which has had no bounds since this terrifying experience. I perhaps wouldn’t be writing this piece if not for the Jhummer 🙂 When clipped onto a hanging rope, it can only slid forward but immediately locks when it slips back thus arresting your fall. It is fixed to a harness around the hips and then clipped onto the rope for safety. It ensures that you do not plummet all the way down to the bottom should you slip on that wall or come loose off it. I still profusely thank the person who has invented that wonderful piece of equipment 🙂 So there I was hanging tightly, by the grace of the Jhummer, to the rope which was our only lifeline. I prayed hard that the rope doesn’t come loose. For without it…..well I need not elaborate. I clung on to the rope for dear life. Suddenly a strong draught blew both my feet off the anchor on the ice. I had never before seen or experienced such strong winds in my entire life. It was blowing up snow like chalk dust from the bottom of the mountain high up into the sky. The bottom is shaped like a cauldron and naturally the strong winds hitting it is blown up the mountain face taking everything along its path. I was plucked off the ice wall like one would blow off a tiny ant off a wall with a strong breath. I dangled from the rope swinging from side to side, arrested only by the Jhummer on the rope. Incredibly I felt quite light, like as if I was floating. Was it the wind? I remember this dream I use to have often when I was a small kid. I would jump off a cliff but the draught from below would keep me afloat like I was flying. It was an incredible experience like as if it was for real. Now it was happening for real ! I was lifted by the wind and actually floated on air albeit perhaps only for a few seconds, I can’t exactly remember how long. But it was incredible! The climber below me was waving his arms frantically screaming at the top of his lungs, like as if I could hear him in that storm ! Puzzled, I looked up and saw this green thing like a parachute over my head. Darn it! It wasn’t a parachute, it was the tent that was tied to my backpack ! The damn thing was looped over my neck and the ends were tied to both the sides of my back pack. The draught coming from below had blown off the mid portion which unfurled like a tiny parachute keeping me afloat. I hung on to the rope for dear life, swinging crazily. Carefully I manoeuvred myself to face the mountain and then struck with my Ice Axe on the wall. It held. Then I pulled myself in, stuck one foot and the other next into the wall. Anchoring myself safely, I eased myself out of my backpack slowly, gathered the tent and tied it as securely as I could. But I could not risk it again. The climber below me had already reached the bottom by then. So I clipped the bag onto the rope with a carabiner and let it slip all the way down. The wind had also eased up as suddenly as it came. Free of my baggage, I quickly hooked the carabiner on my harness onto the rope, removed my Jhummer, and descended rapidly facing downwards using what is called the ‘Flying Fox technique’, one of the quickest way to get down a mountain in which you literally run down the mountain face, arresting and maintaining your descent by the friction of the rope looped on the carabiner and around the waist. I wanted to get off that cliff as quickly as I could and not be blown off it again. Once my two feet landed on soft firm ground at the base of the mountain, I heaved a sigh of relief. I had never been so glad to be standing on my two feet on level ground. I bet you never ever realise how lovely that is. This was the craziest experience I have ever had in all my sojourn in the mountains, one I am not likely to forget ever.
It was only when I reached the Base camp that I was glad that we had taken off the mountain like rabbits on the run. The weather conditions at the top did not ease up the next day as well. Although sad at the thought that the weather had stolen the chance from us to summit the peak, it was comforting to know that we were back safe and sound.